How to Write an Essay for Q4Colleges.com
by Peter Elbow
I got interested in writing because in my first try for a PhD at Harvard, I gradually couldn’t write. I had to quit before I was kicked out and felt like a complete failure because I had so much invested in my image of myself as a good student. When I went back to grad school five years later (at Brandeis) I gradually learned what became my philosophy of writing: I can’t write right, but I can write wrong; and then I can make it right. It’s too hard to take a mess in the head and turn it into coherence on paper; but it’s not so hard to take a mess on paper and turn it into coherence on paper.
My current interests (reflected in my new book) concern the wisdom of the tongue. Starting around age four, we all internalize a native language. No one’s native language is the same as “correct, edited, written English,” but as the linguist Pinker says, every four year old child in speaking follows grammatical rules that are more complex and intricate than any linguist has ever yet been able to describe. Our native language represents our deepest linguistic sophistication and wisdom and power–and it’s in our body. We’ve learned and internalized in our native language–but we can’t even access it with conscious thinking. So I’m interested in tapping that linguistic sophistication and wisdom for correct writing–even when the writing cannot exactly be in our native spoken language.
Here are a few practical pieces of advice for calling on the wisdom of the tongue when you write–even correct writing.
(1) “Talk onto the page” during the early stages when you’re just trying to get ideas. Produce language the way you do when you talk informally in a comfortable setting: when a thought occurs to you, just let the words come out as they do in speaking. Do this by actually moving your fingers (or perhaps with your mouth using, voice-activated software). This process is good for getting lots of ideas and even an early draft. You’re not trying for “good writing,” you’re trying to talk your ideas onto the page.
Some of what you produce might be a mess: there are going to be ramblings, digressions, and imprecise and even contradictory thinking. But it turns out that there are some very good qualities in this kind of not-carefully-planned speaking: language with liveliness, energy, and “voice” and a proliferation of ideas. (For more about this see Part One of my Vernacular Eloquence)
(2) The next step is to go through all you’ve written with a tolerant and hopeful eye–not being discouraged or self-critical about the mess of it. Just look for all the good ideas; there will be almost certainly be more than you could have come up with if you’d tried to start by making an outline. Make a quick list of the ideas you find–in the order you find them. Make a tiny blunt germ sentence for each one–sentences with a verb–sentences that actually say something instead of just pointing to a topic or an area. If you are writing something with any complexity, now is the time to make an outline by rearranging those sentences into a sequence that makes sense–a sequence that tells a good story of thinking. I call this a “story outline.” Most good essays are actually more like stories of thinking than creations of pure logic. From this sequence of germ sentences, try to create a fairly good draft where your emphasis is not on good language but on figuring out how to say what you really want to say and the right order for saying it.
(3) Now comes the final way to call on the wisdom of the tongue. When you have a pretty good draft that finally says what you want to say, then take every sentence and read it out loud. Read it with loving attention. But you’re not trying to find the best performance of those particular words; your goal is to keep changing or fiddling with the sentence till it feels right in your mouth and sounds right in your ear. That’s the mantra. Use only your mouth and ear for judging. When they are satisfied, you can trust that it’s a strong clear sentence. It might not be grammatically correct and it might perhaps be too informal or slangy, but it’ll be strong and clear–the most precious and hard to achieve qualities in writing. Fix the grammar and level of formality later.
Then using this same out-loud process, read through whole paragraphs and even the whole thing. The mouth and ear will also alert you to problems in thinking or organization, for example digression or contradiction. Or perhaps you’ve made two excellent sentences right next to each other, but the link between them is bad. The mouth and the ear will tell you how to fix everything.
(4) Edit for appropriate grammar and spelling and the right level of formality for your audience. Many writers think that important essays have to be more formal than necessary. Think about your favorite essays and notice how even though they avoid “mistakes,” they use language that is usually friendly and comfortable–“sayable.”